Albertine and Her Captive

Albertine and Her Captive

Tue 27 Feb

ASTRAGAL by ALBERTINE SARRAZIN. Introduction by Patti Smith. London: Serpent’s Tail. £8.99.

The New York poet, performer and author, Patti Smith, first read Astragal in 1968. In fact, she spent her last 99 cents on a copy she found in a secondhand bookshop. The front cover proclaimed the author, a "female Genet". In Smith's introduction to this English translation she writes that Astragal soon became her guidebook. She wrote the introduction, she tells us, in one night pausing only to reline her eyes with Maybelline. In so doing she was paying homage to the marginalised figure of Albertine Sarrazin, who wrote from prison and died at age forty. Unsentimental but fiercely moving, Sarrazin's writing fuses stoic suffering in the face of alienation and loss with a passionate determination to meet each new day.

Astragal is a semi-autobiographical novel written in a prison cell. Sarrazin’s teenage heroine, Anna, is a social success on her cell-block. She has two lovers taken from the all-female inmates but she soon tires of their clinginess and soppy love letters. Anna needs her freedom. When she escapes by climbling over the prison wall, she breaks her astragal, or ankle bone. She crawls to a main road from where she can hitchhike and where, a motorist, Julien, picks her up. Anna recognises at once that Julien is also a criminal. The feeling is mutual, and straightaway, he takes responsibility for her.

If people were rated for courage and style, Julien and Anna would be angels. Julien is a model of nouvelle vague manhood. His hair is "parted in a thousand places, the furrows of a wet comb; he is never without his toilet kit". But because they use thievery for their upkeep they are society's sinners. Julien escorts Anna first to his mother’s house, and thence to other safe houses. It seems there were people in Sixties Paris whose profession was to shelter criminals on the lam for payment which Julien regularly makes.

Anna starts to fall for Julien's furtive charm. But she also has a vision of where she needs to be. "Everything is my due but I want to take it for myself." It is not enough to love a piece of well-dressed rough. She needs to match him sou for sou. Without a broken ankle this would be a bagatelle. But the ankle is not healing; her photo is on wanted posters and it is too dangerous to present herself at a hospital.

My fate from now on was to go from a bed to a car seat, from a car seat to a bed, to be put down and lugged around at will by friendly men and strangers, who owed me nothing and from whom I had to borrow.

By now, Julien is supporting Anna financially, but his promises to visit are unreliable. It is she who now feels herself to be clinging to a phantom. When he does turn up: "I welcome home a man whose eyes are brilliant with fatigue." She is besotted with her burglar lover.

Sarrazin gives us a tour of the safe houses of Paris, each with their own set of finicky rules. Anna is finally able to address the problem of her ankle by adopting a false identity provided by her hostess, and she is taken to hospital. Her ankle mends. At last she can earn her own keep. She feels she has recovered more than just her mobility, but her independence from Julien, too. Ironically she achieves this independence by picking up men. The prison Sarrazin describes is more than just the walls and bars of the Clink. But style is so seductive, and at face value, Anna is functioning on her own terms. One of her clients puts her up in an apartment.

I have a steady income, shopping lists, the joint looks prettier and Julien telephones more often. I won’t be caught again. No.

Famous last words. When Julien doesn’t phone, Anna finds out that he has been arrested. The wheel of dependency has turned. To help him, Anna pulls off a burglary at the workplace of one of her wealthy clients. Being a decent sort of criminal she leaves the scene in such a way that it doesn't implicate him.

When Julien gets out of prison, she is able to give him a roll of banknotes: her take from prostitution and burglary. She tells him to buy a new car. She considers their relationship to be free from debt. This resolves the problem that she had set out to solve, but Sarrazin does not end the novel just yet. Before it closes, the wheel has turned again.

Review by Lilian Pizzichini, editor of The Revisionist

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